Hidden pearls: A reflection on campus advocacy

The day Leonard Cohen died, I listened to his song, “Hallelujah”, performed by Grace Love. In college, I was obsessed with the album Grace by Jeff Buckley and it was his rendition of “Hallelujah” that first introduced me to this song. Cohen struggled with writing what turned out to be his most memorable song, and it did not become popular until much later, after many other artists covered it. It dawned on me that sometimes a pearl is left to be discovered after the thrashing tides bury the jewel delivered by life’s most difficult moments.


Credit: JeffBuckley.com

Over 20 years ago I found myself walking 5 miles back to my dorm room in the cold dark hours before the sun came up after an experience I would later understand as sexual assault. I was enraged at what had happened, and it was that anger that powered my feet to get back to my own bed. I was lucky that year to find a community of advocates, feminists, queer spaces, and other groups engaged in justice work. I found spaces where I could grapple with the relentless experiences of sexism I encountered, the weight of the privilege I carried, and eventually the meaning of the assault I had yet to acknowledge.

Many years later, my path led me to working at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance doing systems advocacy, prevention program development, and social change work. For 10 years, I was part of incredible projects that I believe had an impact in Virginia and the nation. This year, I made a professional transition to work in higher education as the director of a campus resource center for students who have experienced gender-based violence and harassment. It has been quite a change from doing “macro” level work to direct services and this significant professional transition has left me with a few reflections. Advocates who have the privilege to walk with survivors in the aftermath of assault or abuse have a unique understanding of how violence and trauma manifest; it weaves its way into muscles, marrow, and matter. All the education, models, tips, and tools that have been brilliantly created to assist in providing the most appropriate response can’t prepare us for what this role entails. This is the hardest job in our field; it requires deep empathy, compassion, and vulnerability– something our culture unfortunately teaches us to offer sparingly.

While I grapple with the sacredness of this role and balancing caring for others and caring for myself, I am struck by the vibrant energy of college students and the passion and understanding they have about the issues of sexual and interpersonal violence. At times I struggle with how slow progress is, but I am inspired and hopeful when surrounded by students. Far beyond my level of understanding when I was their age, they grasp the intersectionality of violence and sexism, racism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and classism, and how they are woven into our culture. We all, in one way or another, are affected by the many ways in which violence and oppression show up in our institutions and culture. Like sand in the ocean, oppression has a way of invading us, entering our souls, irritating our lungs and our muscles.


Credit: quotesgram.com


The majority of students I work with are survivors of their own trauma, who harness their experiences not only into practical support when another person needs it, but collectively are part of a larger force responsible for the culture shift to the kind of community we envision for ourselves. It feels less shameful to be out as a survivor these days, which is a welcome change as we continue to break down the divide between “advocates” and “survivors,” a false division that erases the major contributions survivors have made in this movement and fails to acknowledge survivors as the driving force of this work.

We have a long way to get to the community we envision for ourselves. The constant rubbing of violence and oppression on our bodies and souls can make us raw and brittle. Fortunately the human spirit is resilient and quite possibly magical. It heals. Were it not for life’s sand paper, we may never reach another level of knowing and genius that comes from surviving. Like a pearl in nature, sometimes our most powerful gifts form as a response to an irritant or invader. As I walk around campus, work with students, and reflect on my own life, I am more and more encouraged about the state of our movement and where we go from here. I walk among a sea of pearls who will carry forward a legacy of strength, compassion, and love.


Liz Cascone is the Director of The Haven at William & Mary, a peer-based confidential, welcoming, and inclusive resource center for those impacted by sexual violence and harassment, relationship abuse and intimate partner violence, stalking, and other gender-based discrimination.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org


What Are We Yearning For? Building a Movement.

On a rainy day in Portland three months ago, Kristi and I sat in a room with 25 other leaders of domestic and sexual violence state and national coalitions, and were asked to ponder this question:

“As a movement working to end gender-based violence, what are we hungry and yearning for?”

The Action Alliance had been invited to join a cohort of statewide and national organizations to build and strengthen the movement to end violence against women and girls. The effort is part of Move to End Violence (MEV), a 10-year project funded by the NoVo Foundation to support leaders in our work to step back from our daily grind to envision the change we want to see, imagine new strategies, and build the capacity needed to make that change come to life.

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picture credit: Kate McCord

This was the second meeting for the group to learn, ponder, and discuss what our movement has been in the past, what it is now, and what it needs to be moving forward. It was easier to answer the question with negatives: we are not hungry and yearning for more hotline calls, more protective orders, more arrests, a higher shelter census. Though they are critical and often life-saving resources, we do not yearn for them.

We kept talking. We yearn for healing. We yearn for joy. We yearn for a world where violence and domination is replaced by compassion and interconnectedness. We yearn for a future where our children’s children will learn about oppression only in history books.

We yearn for liberation. We yearn to hold community with others doing brave work to get to the same horizon.

We talked about how to get there: centering the experiences of marginalized communities in our work, igniting major shifts in the larger culture, economic justice, ending mass incarceration and detention, reproductive justice, an engaged democracy. Big work.

We imagined electrifying possibilities by filling in the blanks: “If all domestic and sexual violence coalitions joined forces to make X impact in Y way at the same time, what could we accomplish?”

Imagine what we could accomplish.

We will be partnering with other state and national coalitions to find out. The Action Alliance and all other coalitions involved in this project have committed to work on areas of bold action that we see as stepping stones to a world with less domination and inequality and greater interconnectedness, compassion, and justice.

The work will require us to believe that fundamental, systemic change is possible, and that we are part of that work. It will require us to embrace experimentation and change in the service of learning and adapting. It will require building a bigger “we”—showing up for and partnering with others who believe in a similar vision. It will require us to work in alignment toward the same shared vision.Image 3

And of course this is where you come in, dear brave members and supporters. We will be asking you to believe that another world is possible and to join with us in deep conversation about what it would take to make the audacious vision of that world come to life. To stay at the table long enough for our conversations to get to a place of deeper understanding, clarity, and connection. To join our efforts and hang in there with indomitable spirits as we make some big leaps and bold moves.

This will be hard. This will be worth the struggle. We can do this.

Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the Action Alliance’s Racial Justice Task Force, and has been working in the movement to end gender-based violence for over 25 years. Kate will be working with other coalition leaders as part of this Move to End Violence initiative to mobilize against state violence and create community-based alternatives to incarceration.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org

#SayHerName: Intersecting race, sexual violence and activism

January 21, 2016

Today people will gather together from all over the country in Oklahoma City to Stand with Survivors of Sexual Violence as a judge sentences a former Oklahoma City police officer convicted in December on 18 charges including rape and sexual battery of 13 African-American women living in the neighborhood he was assigned to protect.  The former police office is white. Race and gender were and are at the center of this story.

Black Women’s Blueprint organized this national protest from their base in New York City—using the networks of sexual violence advocacy organizations, networks of black women’s advocacy organizations, social media and the mainstream press to send out a call to “symbolically stand with every survivor of sexual assault, rape and other sexual brutalization by State agents across the country.”  While this case is particularly abhorrent, the grim reality is that those of us who advocate at the margins—with victims of sexual violence, on issues of racial justice, in impoverished communities—are witness to many versions of this same story over and over and over.  Individuals using their position of authority to perpetrate sexual violence against those who are easily dismissed by the mainstream as “untrustworthy” or “partly to blame” for their own victimization.

Black Women’s Blueprint asserts that “racial justice movements will be stronger if we include gender-violence, sexualized brutality, and if we include the experiences of women, trans-people, gender non-conforming people and girls…”

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance stands with survivors in Oklahoma City today.  We urge our members and supporters to recognize that our movement to end sexual and intimate partner violence will be stronger if we recognize and listen to the experiences of African-Americans and all people of color, including trans-people and gender non-conforming people and if stand with others against hate violence and State violence.



African-American Policy Forum – Oklahoma City Days of Visibility and Accountability –          Toolkit 

#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, A Social Media Guide

Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for nearly 40 years. 


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org